The Elements of Style

The Elements of Style

Authors: William Strunk and E.B. White



This book eases the difficulty we all have in writing by advocating ‘rules of grammar phrased as direct orders’ (page xiv). The forward to the book acknowledges that ‘writing is hard, even for authors who do it all the time’ (page ix). The book reflects the character of its main author, a famous professor of English, who loves ‘…the clear, the brief, the bold…’, and scorns ‘…the vague, the tame, the colourless…'(page xviii). E.B. Strunk, his student, is probably better known as the author of children’s books such as Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. The book demonstrates the authors’ view of good writing; it disciplines the mind and is a way of thinking. They said ‘…the practice and habit of writing not only drain the mind but supply it, too’ (page 70).


The book begins with an exploration of the principles of good writing. It highlights the importance of skilfully constructing ‘the unit of composition’, the paragraph. It encourages strong and concise sentences because ‘…the surest way to arouse and hold a reader’s attention is by being specific, definite, and concrete‘ (page 21). The authors advise that the first sentence of a paragraph should suggest the topic, or help the transition from the preceding paragraph (page 16). They advocate economy of words and sentences saying ‘…omit needless words…’ and ‘…a sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences…'(page 23). They also recommend placing emphatic words at the end of sentences (page 32).



A key feature of the book is its account of frequently misused words and phrases. A typical example is ‘the fact that’; this is a ‘debilitating expression’ which ‘…should be revised out of every sentence in which it occurs…’ (page 24). The book suggests more appropriate alternative phrases and words for this and other poor expressions. The authors discuss the appropriate use of word-pairs that are often interchanged; these include among/between, imply/infer, disinterested/uninterested, and nauseous/nauseated. A typical pearl is their advice to ‘avoid starting a sentence with however when the meaning is nevertheless’ (page 48).

In their exposition of what they call ‘an approach to style‘, the authors list 21 tips to improve the quality of writing. These include gems such as ‘write in a way that comes naturally’ (page 70), ‘do not explain too much‘ (page 75), and avoid the use of qualifiers such as rather and very (page 73). They emphasise the importance of clear writing saying ‘…although there is no substitute for merit in writing, clarity comes closest to being one’ (page 79). The book reviews the appropriate use of exclamations, parentheses, and quotations, and ends with an extensive and very useful glossary.




This excellent book targets anyone who writes. Good writing is critical in healthcare- for case records, writing reports, research grant applications and publications. The clear rules in this book are important for doctors who rely on good communication for safe practice.


The book offers invaluable lessons for effective writing, and I strongly recommend it.



  • Publisher, place, date: Longman, New York, 2000
  • Edition: 4th
  • Number of chapters: 21
  • Pages: 105
  • ISBN: 1-205-30902-X
  • Price: £8.03
  • Star rating: 5 stars

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